On the other side of this Final Four rainbow, Virginia will encounter peers — true peers — in Minneapolis. Auburn, Michigan State and Texas Tech have different playing styles, different coaching personalities and vastly different on-campus experiences, but a similar blue-collar ethos binds these teams. They have created something of an everyman’s Final Four.
Many will lament the absence of celebrity because Zion Williamson and several other shooting stars didn’t earn the chance to pass through here on the way to the NBA. Many will stalk the television ratings, secondary ticket markets and other metrics to test the hypothesis that the Elite Eight, while thrilling, has robbed the NCAA men’s tournament of a more compelling conclusion. But these four semifinalists don’t have to apologize for being so talented, so tough and so clutch — and besides, what good is a sport if interest is confined to a handful of headliners?
Variety doesn’t have to be boring. If you paid attention to the entire season, you know the only surprise participant here is Auburn, and the Tigers’ tournament success, as a No. 5 seed, should register as just a moderate shock. The other three, while they don’t play the fastest or score the most, flashed dominance all year and won regular season titles in power conferences.
Still, there’s a level of newness to this bunch. Virginia is returning to the Final Four for the first time in 35 years. Auburn and Texas Tech are first-timers, period. Their coaches — Tony Bennett, Bruce Pearl and Chris Beard — are all rookies on this stage. And while Michigan State is a perennial contender making its eighth Final Four appearance under Coach Tom Izzo, the Spartans built their powerhouse with the same overachieving charm as the others. Like his current squad, Izzo’s best teams aren’t loaded with one-and-done prodigies and starting lineups full of NBA talent. Izzo can recruit at that level on occasion, but during his 24 seasons at Michigan State, the program has specialized in player development and lived by the hard-nosed coach’s motto: “Players Play; Tough Players Win.”
Virginia should feel at home in this environment. If getting here didn’t provide enough validation, being here will fill the rest of the cup. The Cavaliers arrive not as an outlier that defied strategic and team-building convention to create a new big-boy model, but a normal program blessed with the aptitude to define and build around what works for them rather than try to keep up with the so-called blue bloods of college basketball.
It’s funny. Auburn, Virginia’s opponent in the national semifinal, is the different duck now because the Tigers run and jack up three-point shots at a rate that the Cavaliers, Spartans and Red Raiders wouldn’t tolerate. There won’t be a stigma about playing slow in this Final Four, just as there won’t be an obsession with uber-talented freshmen and draft stock.
The field features just two probable freshman starters: Michigan State forward Aaron Henry, the subject of Izzo’s ire earlier in the tournament, and Virginia guard Kihei Clark. The only projected NBA lottery picks are Texas Tech sophomore Jarrett Culver and Virginia sophomore De’Andre Hunter. Yet there will be plenty of skill on the court, and it’s spread so evenly across all four rosters that it’s impossible to feel confident in any predictions.
As the Duke slayer, the team with the coach who has been here and won it all, Michigan State is a popular favorite, but the Spartans must get past Texas Tech, which is the most athletic and imposing team remaining. On the other hand, Virginia has been the most consistent team throughout the season. The lone certainty is that Auburn has the most difficult road. Then again, how can you not fear the Tigers after they beat Kansas, North Carolina and Kentucky in the past three rounds?
Making the Final Four is often a championship in itself. Win your region, cut down the nets, celebrate and keep on celebrating regardless of how you fare in the semifinal. For most programs, it makes for the tidiest narrative to create icing out of what comes after the region final. It’s arbitrary to draw a line at four rather than, say, eight and declare that the standard of the excellence. It seems especially cruel this season because, with the historically close margins of Elite Eight games, the Final Four was a whisker from featuring Duke, Kentucky, Purdue and Gonzaga.
Those games showed us that the top tier of college basketball, at least for the 2018-19 season, is heavily populated. Now that we’re down to four teams, it could be even more difficult to determine who’s better. I can’t imagine the final three games of the tournament being any better than the previous round, which featured three overtime affairs. But the champion shouldn’t blow away the competition like Villanova did a year ago.
For Virginia, for all the surviving teams, the Final Four doesn’t have to just be icing. There’s a legitimate chance to win it all. This is as even as a Final Four can get. Forget history, or lack thereof. Forget that redemption already has been accomplished. The celebration is over, even though the happy feeling will last for decades. There’s a real chance to make more history.
Michigan State has won two titles, in 1979 and 2000. The others have not. It has been a while, since Florida won in 2006, that college basketball has introduced a first-time champion. Lately, championship tradition has mattered more than usual in the Final Four. It’s a minor factor this time.
Now, it’s about the fight. That’s all. It’s about which team can come up with a good plan and then adjust when things go wrong. It’s about unappreciated things such as rebounding, defensive rotations and ball movement. You can’t pick a winner by looking at the team with the most NBA talent. You have to look at the subtleties of each roster.
It’s a Final Four that accentuates Virginia’s undervalued positives, a Final Four that emphasizes there is more than the one-and-done way to build a great team. And when you realize that Villanova (twice) and North Carolina have won the past three championships with a similar approach, you can consider this more than an aberration. The streak will extend to four by Monday night.
Welcome to the cutting edge, and welcome back to the old, classic model. Focused and persistent team-building wins. It always has, by the way.
For more by Jerry Brewer, visit washingtonpost.com/brewer.
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